Abbiba Ivy Princewill: Systems plus Processes vs. Revolutionaries and Messiahs

by on July 23, 2015

BT COLUMNIST: Cold Facts With Abbiba Ivy Princewill

This year has been the most productive of my entire life. I have had so much time to read widely and do a lot of thinking, specifically about Post-Colonial Africa.

Today, I intend to share some of those thoughts by focusing on the psyche of Africans. It is not in doubt that the Africa of today has failed to live up to the heady optimism of independence – our people are poor, educational outcomes are terrible and most of our countries score very low in the human development index.

We tend to blame our developmental challenges on Imperialist forces or bad leadership. This might all be true but I think we miss a more nuanced point which is the psychology of the people themselves, leaders do not exist in a vacuum, they come from a community and society at large. So today, I would like for us to go through some of the issues that we often overlook when discussing the failure of Post-Colonial Africa –

  1. We underestimate what colonialism, Military dictatorships, One party states, Poverty, Corruption, Wars and conflict and even HIV/AIDS has wrecked on our individual and collective cultural confidence as Africans.
  2. We have failed to think in a more un-orthodox way about the reasons for the failure of African Leadership. Why do our leaders always have good intentions at first? They know all the problems, know the solutions but once they get there. They are just unable to implement or deliver anything. Listen to any of our Regional/ Continental gathering, year after year we have the same discussions poverty reduction, maternal health, access to capital but very little happens. Why

Accepted Orthodoxy

All our leaders are bad and selfish. If only we could get a true revolutionary/Messiah like Sankara, Mandela or Nkrumah all will be well.  Well, but we did have Sankara for 4 years; did Burkina Faso become a first world country? We did have Nkrumah for 15 years in Ghana and he ran down the economy of Ghana one of the most prosperous states in Africa to the ground. Plus, he was sliding into a one-man dictatorship at the time he was removed. We had Mandela for five years, but Black South Africans are still poor. 21 years after Apartheid, they still earn 7 times less than what whites earn. Therefore, we must question the accepted orthodoxy on the leadership question in Africa. It must mean one thing that our preconceived notions about African leadership is fundamentally wrong. The leaders are not the only problem but the failure of the institutions to rein in the darker aspects of human nature.

My Thesis

The reason for the huge deficit in leadership in Post-Colonial Africa is the vast majority of Africans have lost cultural confidence and we do not believe that we have the capacity to do for ourselves. So we are constantly looking for Messiahs, Revolutionaries or better still a White Savior to come and change the situation for us.

Our leaders know that we want messiahs and revolutionaries. So they feed us a diet of hope. They build 10kms of roads and they call us to come and praise them. They show us models of so-called, cities they intend to build, train lines they intend to build, classrooms they intend to build. In fact, they spend more money to commission projects than they spend on the actual project.


There is a saying that what you are called is not important. It is what you answer to. When the first Europeans came to the West coast of Africa. They treated the people they met as equals and traded with them. Two things changed their perception of Africans. The Slave trade and even more importantly, the fact that as Europe was advancing Africa remained stagnant. Colonialism made us see our past as unimportant and primitive, with nothing to offer the modern world. But is that really true? The only successful Post-Colonial African state is Botswana. When it gained its independence in 1964. It was largely rural and illiterate, with less than 10 Graduates at independence, but what it had going for it was the fact that the colonialists did not destroy the traditional institutions. These traditional institutions were incorporated into the modern country and it underpins the institutions of that country. They are the second largest producers of diamonds in the world, no corruption; they have had a stable democracy since independence, and a per capita income of 10,000 dollars.

The example of Botswana shows us that our Traditional institutions have a role to play in our present. We need to learn from our pre-colonial societies and institutions. In those societies, a lot of importance was placed on systems and processes not the whims and caprices of a big man. In fact, the whole concept of the ‘big man’ is an aberration of African culture. There were processes to choose a king, remove him, and powerful council of chiefs to serve as checks and balances. Even the Dibias and Ifa priests had apprentice programs for their successors. We had Town criers, Orators and keepers of institutional memory – the bottom line is we had functioning institutions underpinned by traditions – which is just another word for system and processes.

A nation cannot be run on good intention, wishes or by waiting for a Messiah/ revolutionary. Nations are only as good as their institutions.

Lastly, institutions can only be built when there is trust and buy-in from the population. For a country like Nigeria that is incredibly large and diverse. The best way to build institutions is not by a top-down approach but a bottom –up approach. We should look at the possibility of scrapping the Local Government system and replacing it with the traditional institutions supported by a group of local technocrats. So Accountability and trust is possible.

About Abbiba Ivy Princewill:

She has an LLB from King’s College London and is currently studying for an LLM in Securities Regulation at University of California, Los Angeles. She has deep interest in Finance, African Politics and the state of STEM education in Nigeria. Connect with her on Twitter here.


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